Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Monsignor Quixote by Graham Greene

"Perhaps we are all fictions, father, in the mind of God."

I have had this book on my shelf for a long time, waiting to read it until I had finished Don QuixoteAs I have said before, I think that the compulsion to model or remake canonical texts is risky; most often the result is a constant reminder of how far short modern literature falls of our greatest forebears.  Graham Greene's Monsignor Quixote is no exception, I think.  While it is often touching and thoughtful, I thought that its attempts to reimagine the journey of Don Quixote and Sancho in post- Franco Spain were the least effective aspects of it.

Greene's Quixote is a priest, supposedly the descendent of Cervantes' hero.  He does not get on well with his superior, but his hospitality toward a bishop passing through La Mancha results in his nomination as a monsignor, which mortifies his sense of humility.  His friend Sancho, a Communist and former mayor of their town of Toboso, compels him to take a leave of absence and a brief trip to Madrid to purchase the purple socks and pechera of his new station.  In Greenesque fashion, the journey is complicated when the pair inadvertantly invite the attention of the Fascist police and end up on the run.

Monsignor Quixote and Sancho often pause to acknowledge, with a smirk, the parallels between their "journey" and Don Quixote's.  This approach works as well as it does because Greene wisely foregrounds it, keeping the protagonists aware of the allusions, and thus keeping Monsignor Quixote squarely in the metafictional tradition that started with Don Quixote's second part.  And the differences are just different enough--Sancho, for example, is no fool, but a cagey, thoughtful man.  Like Cervantes' heroes, the friendship between the two is unbreakable, even in the face of their philosophical differences.  I particularly liked a scene where Sancho takes the unknowing Monsignor to a whorehouse, where he tries to blow up a condom like a balloon.

Greene has a couple different goals here, I think.  He wants to draw a parallel between the two Quixotes, who are both committed to supposedly outmoded literary traditions.  Just as the Knight of the Sorrowful Face has his books of chivalry, the Monsignor has his Bible, and I think Greene is elegizing a Catholicism that he sees passing away in the conflicts of the mid-twentieth century.  At one point Sancho tells Monsignor Quixote that, were he to read the letters of Saint Paul, "I would find your taste as absurd as Cervantes found your ancestor's."  Yet that doesn't seem right; even while he pokes fun at Don Quixote, Cervantes always seems to hint that his outmoded moral code makes him a better and nobler man than the people he meets.

But also I think Greene is trying to envision a union of Catholicism and Communism that preserves the Church's commitments to the poor and the spiritual life in the face of venal capitalism.  I know Brent's favorite scene from this novel occurs at the end, where a feverish Monsignor performs a kind of "phantom" mass without the elements--an assertion of the power of even imaginary sacraments, though probably not theologically sound, with the Catholic insistence on Christ's immanence in the wafers and wine.  But my favorite scene is the one that occurs just before, when the Monsignor comes upon a small-town parade that includes an effigy of Mary papered in bank notes:

Father Quixote could not understand what he saw.  He was not offended by the customary image, with the plaster face, and the expressionless blue eyes, but the statue seemed to be clothed entirely in paper.  A man pushed him to one side, waving a hundred-peseta note, and reached the statue.  The carriers paused and gave him time to pin his note on the robes of the statue.  It was impossible to see the robes for all the paper money--hundred-peseta notes, thousand-peseta notes, a five-hundred-franc note, and right over the heart a hundred-dollar bill.  Between him and the statue there were only the priest and the fumes of the incense from his censer.  Father Quixote gazed up at the crowned head and the glassy eyes which were like those of a woman dead and neglected--no one had bothered even to lower her lids.  He thought: Was it for this she saw her son die in agony?  To collect money?  To make the priest rich?

Now, this scene wins no points for subtlety.  But it seems timely, like a lesson that we have yet to learn, one that is certainly as true in 21st century United States of America as it was in mid-century Spain.  Monsignor Quixote is far from my favorite Greene novel--I'm not sure it is measurably improved by the often-goofy references to Cervantes, which may even distract from what a strong and sympthetic character the Monsignor is.  But scenes like the one above continue to resonate--and perhaps even chasten me.

1 comment:

Brent Waggoner said...

Great review. I somehow missed (or forgot about) the comparison between chivalric literature and the Bible. That's a good observation. I think I liked this book more than you but I do agree that with a few exceptions, the parallels with Quixote weren't terribly important to the book.